Dear Word Detective: What is a meme? — Sally Purdy.
Oh, what isn’t a meme? My spellchecker may not recognize the word (way to go, Open Office), but you can’t spend more than ten minutes on the internet before you’re knee-deep in “memes,” or what are labeled as such by the other netizens. By the way, whatever became of “netizen”? Of all the dippy coinages cooked up in the mid-1990s “internet evangelism” dementia, “netizen” (supposedly a combination of “internet” and “citizen”), meaning someone who, as the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) puts it delicately, “uses the Internet, especially habitually,” was among the lamest (and quite possibly the most vacuously self-important). I always preferred “mouse potato” myself.
I was kidding about the encyclopedic and omnivorous scope of the term “meme,” but the definition of the term offered by the OED certainly covers a lot of territory: “A cultural element or behavioral trait whose transmission and consequent persistence in a population, although occurring by non-genetic means (especially imitation), is considered as analogous to the inheritance of a gene.” In practical terms, “memes” include ideas, rumors, catch phrases (such as the Seinfeldian “not that there’s anything wrong with that”), particular fashions (tattoos, baseball hats worn backwards), tunes or snatches of music (e.g., the old Dragnet “dum dee-DUM-dum”), urban legends (such as “Eskimos have 1000 words for snow”), traditional remedies (“beefsteak cures a black eye”), bizarre legal myths (“undercover cops are not allowed to deny they’re cops”), superstitions, dietary biases (e.g., pork as “unclean,” Brussels sprouts as “good for you”), more rumors, fads, prejudices, things we all know are true but aren’t, and LOLcats. Just about everything that makes life fun, in other words.
The key to a “meme,” what separates a “meme” from a simple personal quirk, preference or fixation, lies in its transmission between people. “Memeticists,” who are apparently paid to study the phenomenon of “memes,” hold that “memes” propagate through human society in roughly the same way that genetic traits and mutations spread. “Memes” can, in this view, be inherited, transmitted, modified, and culled by natural selection just like hair color or height.
“Meme” is one of those rare new words that were definitely coined by an identifiable person, in this case by the evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins in his book “The Selfish Gene,” published in 1976. Dawkins explained that he derived “meme” by shortening the Greek word “mimeme,” meaning “that which is imitated,” and even stipulated that his new word should rhyme with “cream.” Hmm. I suddenly have the irresistible urge to start an internet rumor that the proper pronunciation of “meme” is “mim-MAY.”
So, in practical terms, a “meme” is something that you notice two or more unrelated people doing, saying, singing, dancing, wearing, eating or believing. Pass it on.